Finding Our Way Back to Lent
By JAMES CARROLL
MOST American Catholics were well acquainted with poverty even before the stock market crash of 1929. My mother quit school after eighth grade to add a wage to the family income. Later, she supported my father as he went to night school. Like millions of Catholics, their faith was a source of meaning and dignity at a time when both were in short supply.
The Depression stamped them for life. Born into the aftermath, I was shaped by those years as well. During these past weeks, I’ve worried that we might be facing an unexpected replay of our parents’ and grandparents’ economic distress. But I’ve also been remembering more vividly the Lenten seasons of my midcentury childhood, when I most sharply felt the pull of Catholicism.
I came along well after the Depression, but I understand what Carroll means by "the pull of Catholicism." I feel that strongly during Lent--more so than Easter itself, more so than Christmas (which, it must be said, feels sort of "generically Christian" to me anymore--not secular, just not specifically described by any given component of Christianity). And we all know that I'm not the most observant of Catholics, do we not?
The Catholic theology of damnation was mitigated, if not eliminated, by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The dread of Hell evaporated as Catholics embraced a far more positive, all-merciful God. Those wallet cards disappeared overnight, and we started eating meat on Fridays. The sadomasochist in the sky, divine zapper, was gone, along with the gatekeeping role of the clergy.
Lent remains an important part of the Catholic calendar, but self-denial now, more suggested than required, aims less at penitence than at compassionate identification with, as Pope Benedict wrote at the beginning of this year’s Lent, the impoverished “situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live.” Like Lent, today’s economic crisis can help stir that overdue empathy.
I grew up in that golden glow of Vatican II--all but faded now, I regret to report. We were always encouraged to "give up" something for Lent, and to fast and abstain (in those meatless Friday times, the latter seemed a little pointless). I was pretty peeved a few years ago when a local priest, from the pulpit, in talking up the idea of "giving up" something for Lent saw fit to ridicule the notion of "taking on" for Lent instead. I first stumbled upon that notion--that I will purposely do something for Lent, I will take on a task, whether it be committing to a prayer or worship regimen, or working at the soup kitchen, or being more helpful to Mom and Dad--at college. A Catholic university, I might add, and it was that university's priests who promoted the idea! (It was especially annoying, this more recent priest's ridiculing of what I consider still to be a worthy idea, in that he chose to lace it with a comment along the lines of, "If you're like me, you could afford to lose a little weight anyway." Very true--for both him and me--but I'm quite certain that that is not the point of Lenten fasting, abstinence, or sacrifice. If it is...well, then you can keep the whole thing.)
These days, I try to give up a little something, usually the coffee-break snack, and to avoid meat on Fridays. Honesty compels me to note that I have not been 100% successful with either of those. Which, in a way, is the point, is it not? Certainly God doesn't care if I eat a cookie, or eat between meals, or eat a bologna sandwich on a given day of the week. The point of the endeavor, to me, is to make myself stop and think, to reflect on the greater sacrifice that we Christians believe that God made on our behalf. It's not the cookie, it's the stopping to think about the cookie, and what that stopping to think in turn causes me to contemplate.
I tried to explain that some years ago to a pastor (non-Catholic) of my acquaintance who saw fit to ridicule me for passing on the cookies, or coffee cake, or whatever office snack was circulating that morning. With a sneer he informed me that my small sacrifice wasn't "necessary." I informed him that it certainly was...to me.
Lent offers one answer to today’s new reality. The season begins with the word “Remember,” uttered as a blot of ashes is smudged on the forehead. Remembering the transience of life — ashes to ashes, dust to dust — remains the essence of the observance. This year, I received my ashes at the Catholic church across the street from Harvard University, where the basilica was surprisingly overflowing with hundreds of undergraduates — a privileged elite attending to what every person has in common, and wants ordinarily to deny.
The fact that it is so easy for me to suddenly remember, post-cookie, that it's Lent and I had promised myself to give up such things during these 40 days--that is, the fact that I fail to keep my own promise to myself, and fail so quickly and easily--says something to me. Mostly it says that it's important to keep reminding myself. Just as it's easy to forget and eat the cookie, or the bologna sandwich, it's also easy to forget the original sacrifice that begat the Lenten observance in the first place.